The key felt real. More real than anything Jorge had touched in this world. And as he walked toward the door that would take him home, the key’s weight grew, dragging down his pocket.
Jorge reached inside his pocket and drew out the key.
The key was larger than anything Jorge knew back home. Made of brass. Heavy. The wide bow worked into the image of a flower. Square teeth. A key made for an old castle, which the world of Tamarial had many.
“Well then,” said Toga, “Are you getting along or not? Don’t say you came all this way just to stand there! Hrm.”
The tiny wizard sat nearby on a rock, his boots off, rubbing his feet.
Ahead of them both, Sam barked encouragingly. Eager to get back home. To his bed by the fire with all the raggedy blankets. Warm and comfy.
Warm like the embrace of Jorge’s mother, who he’d not seen in months since being dumped into the twisted fantasy world known as Tamarial. Jorge had not been away from his family for more than a day trip with his class.
Jorge fought back tears, raising an arm to his face to wipe his wet–
Toga leaned forward and struck out with his staff from his perk atop the rock.
The wizened hermit from Dire Moor Crag offered no comfort beyond the brunt, gnarled end of his staff.
“Poor wittle hero,” Toga teased gruffly. He chuckled with little mirth, flashing a gap-toothed grin. “Not sure how you got this far, Snot. All your blubbering and excuses.”
At his heel Sam pulled on Jorge’s trouser, urging Jorge to move further along. Jorge shook his leg to dislodge the dog.
“Not like you were much help,” Jorge mumbled. “Ol’ man, all you’re good for is riddles and questions to answers.”
Toga cackled, his hearing far too acute for a man his advanced age. “And if you were better at riddles I’d not have to smack you around so much!”
Another strike to the head connected with Jorge smartly. The boy winced from the blow’s sting.
After a jab to one of Jorge’s kidneys, Toga ceased his assault, tugged on his boots, hopped off the rock and leaned heavily on his staff. For once the old man was showing his age.
“C’mon, you’re young,” Toga said more gently. “This last hill should be easy for your young bones.”
Ahead of the trio was a short rise toward a narrow cliff that ran off into the distance, the slope’s rock warn by time into a serious of uneven steps. At the top of the rise was a twisted tree, battered by the winds that crashed against the cliff face, its trunk hunched over in relief, its branches curled as if shielding itself from the onslaught of the weather carried in from the overlooking sea. Over the lip the Hollowing Sea welcomed them, shouting at them how it had received its name.
Jorge squinted against a sharp gust of wind and peered at the twisted tree. The cliff’s rising steps seemed to lead inside the worn out hollow of the trunk. The hollow a crooked, dark doorway.
I’ve made it, Jorge told himself, not wanting to believe his journey finally at an end.
Sam insisted on gnawing at Jorge’s pant leg. This time with a more determined effort, the boy tried to shake the dog away. Sam simply whined. Jorge’s foggy vision focused on the tree with a doorway in its belly.
“Do you need another swift knocking, Snot?” Toga asked, lifting his staff in two hands, spirit reinvigorate from his short rest or possibly from the glee at reprimanding Jorge.
Putting steel in his spine, Jorge stood up straight, shoved his shoulders back, and raised his chin.
I’m going home.
“C’mon, Sam,” Jorge said to his furry companion, “let’s go home.”
“Good riddance,” Toga said grudgingly. Jorge sensed a twinge of regret in the old man’s voice.
Through all the beatings to spur Jorge toward his destination, he knew the old man cared for him. As did the boy the old man, who’d stayed by his side despite the constant danger. He had propelled the boy through the poisonous Sinking Swamp despite sickness and flesh rot. Together they’d faced the Dread Lord Karnac with little mana in the old man’s reserve after a long battle with the Bloody Knight, the boy only armed with a short sword and grit, the dog a bark ten times his size. They’d sailed down the Edgington Coast in search of a legend about a key that could open any door.
They continued climbing the mountain and out toward the edge, the old man grunting with effort, the boy clutching his key tightly.
As they drew closer to the tree, the sea roared louder. Out beyond the cliff the sky churned darkly with thick filthy clouds the color of coal. Jorge could smell the storm coming. Lighting danced on the clouds and shortly thunder clapped. Sam whimpered. Poor dog never did like storms. He always cowered under Jorge’s bed at home. Home. Soon Jorge would sleep in his own bed, not hay lofts and hard-packed ground among weeds.
“It’s alright, Sam,” Jorge assured the dog. “Everything’s alright.”
“Mutt needs a good kick,” Toga suggested between a long drag of breath. “Like you do every often. Hah.”
“Admit it. You’ll miss us, Toga.”
Jorge bowed his head slightly and grinned.
In his hand the key with the flowery bow began to grow even heavier, as if Jorge were carry a bag of rocks.
Up on the tip of the ridgeline, the inner hollow of the tree glowed, pulsing like the beat of a heart.
More thunder crashed. The dark cloud cover lighting momentarily.
“This is it, Snot! You go up and find the knot in the tree,” Toga said over the crash of thunder, “and jam that there key in and walk through. Take the mutt. I’ll never feed em.”
Despite the jubilation Jorge felt swelling inside him, Sam continued to whine and soon barked with desperate distress.
Jorge drew in a long breath and turned to bend down and calm the dog.
That’s when Jorge saw what disturbed the dog so.
Another storm rolled over the hilly plane the trio had crossed this afternoon, larger than any dust trail from a charging army. The ground began to grumble. The hair along Sam’s spine stood up, his tail went stiff, and he pressed his ears flat against his skull as he bared his teeth in challenge. Coming at the trio at full speed, charging on all fours from out of the storm blanketing the hills… a minotaur. Magic turned wrong, fusing one of the giant people into no more than a beast of pure rage and hate. Broken chain links each lager than a single man dragged behind the beast from shackles at its wrists. The brass ring in its nose jangled and flapped. Its body was powerful muscle made for crushing. It had deadly horns turned down and pointed at Jorge and Sam with the intent to gorge the pair. Sam pocketed his key and placed a hand on the short sword hanging from his belt. He drew the naked blade to bare at the raging monster.
That’s when Toga stepped between Jorge, Sam, and the minotaur.
“Get going, Snot,” Toga urged. “I’ll hold the bastard!”
Another strong gust picked up the old man’s pointed hat and carried it away. The same wind tore at his white beard, setting his whiskers to flutter, his grey robes to flap against stubby, thin limbs.
“You hear me, Jorge?!” Toga said, never taking his gaze from the minotaur quickly closing the gap between them. “Run! Go home and live!”
“Never mind about my wrinkly ol’ ass!” Toga snapped. “My time is done. Yours is just begun. Go! Before I smack you around myself.”
Before Jorge could protest further, Toga had raised his staff high over head and was murmuring a incantation in a clear musical baritone unlike his own scratchy voice.
The first storm of the sea rushed in from behind them, gathered itself into a fist, and slammed into the minotaur. The beast reared up against the force, straining against the elemental strike, crying out in a frenzy of determination as its hooves struggled for purchase. Several punches at the enveloping cloud cover and the beast parted the barrier. In triumphant celebration, the minotaur slapped its chest, wrist shackles flailing, and fell back on all fours before continuing its forward charge.
Jorge’s raggedy clothes flapped against his fifteen-year-old’s body as the sea’s storm coursed around him, hugging him, leaving a tunnel of wind leading up the to the cliff’s end. The minotaur’s challenging bellows echoed in the tunnel.
Jorge sheathed his short sword, wheeled on his heel with tears in his eyes, and ran up the rocky steps with Sam just ahead. As the duo got closer, the light in the doorway tree’s trunk grew brighter with white brilliance. Once more, for the last time, Jorge drew the key from his pocket. Three steps… Two steps… The last step to the tree was only wide enough for two feet, barely enough for a boy and his dog.
For several breathes Jorge’s fingers searched the spiraling bark of the tree for a keyhole shaped knot.
There! To the right.
It had started to rain around Jorge.
Jorge chanced a glance over his shoulder.
Lightning struck the minotaur. A bombardment spitting from the roiling storm the old man had pressing down on the beast. The minotaur cried out in pain, shouting through the agony as the energy from the storm struck its hard hide, and then slammed a boulder-sized fist down toward the old man calling down the elements.
In a brief moment, Toga looked over his own shoulder and up the rise toward the tree and Jorge. He winked at the boy, who could just make out the barest of grins touching the old man’s lips.
Then Toga whipped his head back around, turned his gaze up to the minotaur’s falling fist, and rammed his staff into the earth.
The storm called forth from the sea wrapped around the old man and the beast at the former’s command, swallowing them in a tornado of wind, rain, and rock pulled from the ground.
Jorge shielded his eyes from the wind. And when he lowered his arm, the old man and the minotaur were gone. As were the storms.